Mid-Century Remains: Is the Civic Coliseum Worth Saving or an Outdated Relic?

 

The most extraordinary part of Knoxville’s James White Memorial Civic Auditorium and Coliseum is mostly unseen by the public at large. Deep in the belly of the 53-year-old facility on Howard Baker Jr. Avenue, there is a museum, of sorts—an homage to both its longtime stage manager, the late C. David Scruggs, and to the countless performing artists and shows that have taken one of its two stages over the course of the building’s history.

The room, which opens directly onto the auditorium stage and also leads down further to the subterranean depths of the structure, is positively papered, scrawled, stacked, blanketed, out and out overrun by memorabilia of every conceivable sort. Graffiti—much of it in the form of personal signatures—tells of some of the artists who have appeared here over the decades: Jerry Seinfeld, Rich Little, Larry the Cable Guy, Kenny Loggins…

Other performers eschewed graffiti and simply left signed photos instead, and those fill the spaces on the walls that aren’t taken over by scrawls or other oddments—pics of Dolly Parton, Freddy Fender, Billy Craddock, Jeff Foxworthy, Rosemary Clooney, Harry Connick Jr., nearly every U.S. president, beginning with Lyndon Johnson, since the facility’s construction in 1963.

There are dozens of hats hanging from the tops of walls, up near the high ceilings—everything from military issue to 10-gallon cowboy toppers to classic ball caps—and antiques and collectible goodies clustered in all corners. A century-old telephone. An old sewing machine. Unopened six-packs of World’s Fair Beer. Movie and musical posters. A fake buffalo head.

There are old musical instruments, too, including a gutted piano hanging from a wall in the corner stairwell, the centerpiece of an arrangement that includes a couple of horns, a snare drum, and an acoustic guitar. Beneath the rows of hats, beside a pair of boxing gloves and above Freddy Fender, hangs a full set of harmonicas, each with a thick patina of rust. “Someone told us that those are Bob Dylan’s harmonicas,” says Knoxville Director of Public Assembly Facilities Greg Mackay. “I don’t know if he knows we’ve got ’em.”

Mackay says many of the more unlikely artifacts were props for stage shows that have appeared at the Civic Auditorium over the years. But the genesis of most of this weird menagerie of stuff—how it came to gather dust in the basement of a half-century-old performance hall in Knoxville, Tenn.—is forever lost, gone with the passing of the man who helped bring it all here.

“We tried to get David to make a tape and catalog some of this stuff before he passed,” Mackay says of Scruggs, who died after a battle with cancer about 10 years ago. “Unfortunately, he was just too weak at that point.”

This room and its departed namesake—the backstage area is dedicated to Scruggs, and his office, with name still on the door, juts out of one wall into the center—are perhaps a reminder of what the city stands to lose moving forward, because the JWMCAC is at a crossroads now. City officials and local promoters seem to agree that the facility is showing its age, in more ways than one.

Whether “moving forward” means refurbishing the big hall or scrapping it outright and starting afresh is still a wide-open question. The city is commissioning a couple of studies in an effort to look at not only the functionality of JWMCAC but also its aesthetics—as a product of controversial mid-20th century architecture—and its relationship to downtown as a whole.

“Whatever I do as director, I want to know what the long-term plan is,” Mackay says. “Are we going to renovate? Expand? Or maybe it’s time for something new. We have to crunch the numbers, and see what’s possible.”

A Star-Filled History

The JWMCAC is the design product of Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty. Though he died in 2013 at age 92, his son, Doug, is still with the company that bears his name, McCarty Holsaple McCarty Inc. They’re one of the firms under consideration for a feasibility study on the building and thus declined comment for this story.

But the elder McCarty spoke to Metro Pulse’s Jack Neely in 2010, prior to his death. He told Neely that at the time of the JWMCAC design, he was heavily influenced by the architect Edward Durrell Stone, designer of such iconic modernist structures as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

Stone is considered one of the nation’s earliest proponents of modern architecture—an umbrella term applied to a host of latter-day architectural styles, usually characterized by a form-over-function aesthetic, hard lines and right angles, and abundant use of concrete and other industrial building materials. Some have called McCarty Knoxville’s first modernist. 

Original plans for JWMCAC reportedly called for a round coliseum adjacent to a smaller, separate auditorium. But economic considerations forced the two to be consolidated into one large rectangular structure, a concession that McCarty would later regret. “I don’t know if I can justify it, really,” he told Neely.

It was built in 1963 for just over $5 million. The final product included the coliseum, with a seating capacity of up to 7,100, the 2,500-seat auditorium, plus an exhibition hall and a banquet room, as well as staging and storage and dressing rooms for the various shows and performers.

And whatever happens to it, the hall is indelibly sewn into the fabric of memory for a couple of generations of Knoxvillians—as the city’s own Broadway show palace, as a showcase for fine arts, as a civic hub, as the site of numberless big concerts and first dates.

Local attorney and former City Council member Robert Frost Jr. had special access to early JWMCAC events; his father and grandfather, Robert Sr. and Ralph Frost, were concert promoters, and they booked what may have been the coliseum’s first show, a performance by concert pianist duo Ferrante and Teicher. There’s a room named for the Frosts in the building’s basement, and another named for Ferrante and Teicher.

Thanks to his elders’ VIP status, Frost Jr. saw—and sometimes hobnobbed with—classic performers like Liberace, Mickey Rooney, Roger Williams, Hal Holbrook, French mime artist Marcel Marceau, and writer Lewis Grizzard.

As a child, he romped in the aisles during the facility’s off-hours, playing games with the redcoats, the nickname given the auditorium ushers. On more than one occasion, he and his family left the performance hall with Liberace—a regular client of the Frosts—and his entourage for after-show festivities and red velvet cake at local fine-dining establishment Regas. “If it was a show that my father and grandfather were promoting, I probably saw it,” Frost says.

Up until the ’90s, when touring productions of major Broadway musicals hit the road, they usually came through Knoxville. And the Civic Auditorium, with its fetching décor and superior sight lines, was the showcase venue. A short list of productions that took the auditorium stage includes Cats, Damn Yankees, The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Les Miserables, South Pacific, The King and I, Brigadoon. (When those shows do come to town now, they usually land in the smaller but more accommodating Tennessee Theatre, whose own renovation took place in the mid ’00s.)

Long before he was the city’s foremost entertainment promotions magnate, Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment whiled away restless teenage and college years at various JWMCAC shows. His first concert, at the auditorium, was Duke Ellington, with longtime sideman Johnny Hodges on saxophone. His first date, at the coliseum, was ’60s rock act Paul Revere and the Raiders. “My parents went with us,” he laughs. “But it was still my first date.”

Capps saw classic hard rockers Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper at JWMCAC, and the Allman Brothers with Duane Allman, part of an odd bill that saw the then-up-and-coming Southern rockers open for crossover country artist B.J. Thomas. He remembers a scheduled Sly and the Family Stone performance that fell through when the artists never took the stage, and seeing “a virtually unknown band called the Faces with a singer named Rod Stewart” open for British blues rockers Savoy Brown.

He saw Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention at the coliseum, as well as Brit rock-guitar god Jeff Beck. And one of his favorite memories is of watching the Rolling Stones there in 1972—a storied show that included Stevie Wonder as the opening act.

“That was the only show I ever stood in line overnight for tickets,” Capps says. “It was the Stones on their Exile on Main St. tour, and Stevie Wonder was just entering his ‘groundbreaking’ phase.”

Mackay, for his part, witnessed several U.S. presidents at the auditorium, plus a few also-rans, too. One of the latter included controversial former Alabama governor. George Wallace, who ran for the presidency four times, and was renowned for his segregationist views. “I was curious to see what he was going to be like,” Mackay says. “There was lots of ranting against ‘pointy-headed liberals and government bureaucrats.’”

One of the most infamous incidents involving JWMCAC was the 1972 arrest of James Brown at the facility. According to reports from the time, Brown and his entourage lingered at the venue for some time after their performance that evening, talking and greeting fans. A security guard called police, and an altercation broke out when the lawmen arrived.

Brown later sued the city of Knoxville, unsuccessfully, for his brief incarceration.

But Nowadays, Not So Much

Bookings have changed on some fronts. For the past few years, the facility’s main tenant has been the Knoxville Ice Bears, the city’s minor league pro hockey team with its main offices in the lobby adjacent to the coliseum, where the team plays about 30 home games per season. Another 21st century addition to the JWMCAC’s lineup of attractions is the Hard Knox Roller Girls roller derby squad, who also skate a handful of home contests every season, facing off against opponents like the Red River Sirens and the Lehigh Valley Special Vixens Unit.

But several coliseum standards haven’t changed much over the last 30 or 40 years. It’s still the stopover for circus acts, every now and again, and still host to periodic Disney on Ice events. A number of children’s shows and dance programs still take place there, and the site still serves as the staging area for the city’s annual Christmas parade.

The building also continues to serve a variety of community-oriented purposes—“There’s a reason it says ‘civic’ in our name,” quips Mackay—including hosting various government functions and meetings, local high school graduations, even serving as classroom space for local firefighters in training.

What you don’t see as often are big rock shows at the coliseum. Or, for that matter, the big-name musicals which often played the auditorium. Events of that sort seem to have been re-routed to bigger, or at least better-suited, venues when they come to town, when they come to town at all.

Mackay, who has served in his present capacity for going on two years, doesn’t know exact figures, but he admits that big music shows have declined at JWMCAC, especially rock concerts. “I think a lot of places skip us now,” he says. “We get calls from promoters who think they’ll sell 9,000 tickets. They don’t want Thompson-Boling [the University of Tennessee basketball arena, also a concert venue], because it has 17,000—too many. Then they find out we have 6,000 and they go somewhere else.”

Capps has booked acts at JWMCAC on and off for 25 years, but he says he does so now far less often than he used to. “I have a certain fondness for it because I saw so many great shows there as a kid,” he says. “It was the venue back then. But the truth? It’s very old now, and it has none of the amenities artists need for a show. It’s definitely in need of being rethought and refurbished.

“It’s a challenging venue, and we don’t go there as often as we used to. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. There are a lot of similarly challenged venues in other secondary and tertiary markets. It’s tough for these old venues built decades ago.”

Capps says that both the acoustics and the ambiance are sorely lacking, at the coliseum in particular. “Audiences today are looking for more of an experience,” he says. “They’re looking for something more comfortable, more conducive to the evening and the performance.”

Mackay says as much, too, noting such details as the coliseum’s lack of roof trusses adequate to support today’s top-hung audio-visual systems and the need for LED lights in the auditorium. But he also notes that rehabilitation is necessary regardless of whether the coliseum ever hosts another rock concert.

He can catalog the issues at some length, but suffice to say that nearly every facet of JWMCAC facilities is in need of some kind of overhaul, from spartan, bare-walled dressing rooms to the locker-room-style bathrooms to the dated concessions.

Outside the building, cracks are starting to show through in the concrete of the plaza and the adjacent parking garage. “It’s not unsafe, but we will start needing to do maintenance soon,” he says.

The city has a couple of studies on the horizon, one of which will look narrowly at the feasibility of rehabbing the facility itself. Several firms are in the running for the study, including, as mentioned before, McCarty Holsaple McCarty. The cost of the study has been estimated at $50,000.

Mackay says city officials hope to select one of the firms for the project in the next several weeks and hope to have the study completed within the next several months. “As director of facilities, I don’t want to do things piecemeal,” he says. “All of the problems are fixable. The question is, at what cost?”

Another evaluation is also pending, and though JWMCAC isn’t its main focus, the results could prove just as important to the building’s future. It was announced recently that the Urban Land Institute, a global nonprofit real estate research and education group, will likely contract with the city to review several public properties for future use. Chief among them is the old McClung Warehouse site, long a redevelopment sore spot in the downtown vicinity.

But the coliseum is also on ULI’s list of targets. Mackay says ULI’s focus will be “to look at the relationship of the property to the city itself… a fabric-of-downtown kind of thing.” Their evaluation is due to take place in October, with findings to come in November.

 

Architecturally Speaking, It’s, Uh...

The question of how JWMCAC does fit with downtown Knoxville is an intriguing one, and it starts with the building’s oft-discussed—and oft-disparaged—aesthetics. A hard rectangular modernist structure made out of several cubic tons of concrete, mirrored by an even harsher concrete parking garage on one side, JWMCAC is not a beautiful building by the standards of any common or classically-minded sensibility.

Still, there’s seemingly little consensus among local architects as to whether it constitutes a visionary, if less-than-graceful commemorative of the mid-20th century or an ugly modernist relic best left in the rubble of architecture’s occasionally problematic history.

For the record, Bruce McCarty admitted to Neely in 2010 that, “It’s a little dated-looking, I think.”

According to University of Tennessee architecture professor George Dodds, JWMCAC and other structures of its ilk represent “the last gasp of New Brutalism. The coliseum, the City County Building, Boston City Hall—these are buildings only a mother could love.

“There’s nothing very lyrical or pleasant about them—most of them are better suited to A Clockwork Orange. And they represent some of the least-loved buildings in Knoxville.”

Which isn’t to say that Dodds discounts McCarty’s work (he notes that the university’s own Art and Architecture Building, another modernist McCarty structure, is “remarkable,” its exterior marked by an almost Cubist artistic sensibility.)

“What really distinguishes McCarty’s work are his interiors,” Dodds says. “The first time I went into the Civic Auditorium, I was really struck by the interior. It’s a really great period piece, as elegant on the inside as it is clumsy on the outside.”

Downtown architect Buzz Goss calls JWMCAC “a really elegant building, primarily because Bruce McCarty was such a talented architect.” Dodds’ UT colleague Mark Schimmenti muses that “it’s a curious building. It’s got some nice characteristics of the days it was built.

“I like that building,” Schimmenti adds. “I don’t know a lot of other people who would say the same.”

“It’s from an era that we don’t remember fondly, for a number of reasons,” says Lee Ingram of Knoxville’s Brewer Ingram Fuller. “It’s one of those buildings that, if it survives long enough, it becomes a local icon.

“A lot of those buildings succumb to pressure for bigger, better, shinier facilities. They become rundown before they become beloved; it’s a typical cycle for civic buildings.”

Like Dodds, Ingram hails the auditorium as “a particularly neat space.” As for the structure as a whole: “It’s an interesting piece of architecture, creative for its day.”

Most observers seem to agree, however, that regardless of how one appraises JWMCAC’s aesthetic appeal, the building’s location on the edge of downtown, with stretches of concrete, interstate, empty buildings, and parking garages separating it from the revitalized heart of the center city, is something less than ideal.

“It’s done on Mars, in the middle of nothing,” says Dodds. “You can tell it was meant to be the center of something, but it never was. That’s how you can tell a city is on a downward spiral, when they declare something as a town center. But town centers aren’t built; they just are. They built it, and nobody came.”

Says Schimmenti, “It’s got all the ingredients—transportation, parking, a dual-purpose coliseum, nearby housing—but it’s the wrong recipe. It doesn’t seem like there’s any there there.”

 

So How to Fix It?

Getting a there there will take some doing—that’s where the ULI study may come in handy. Goss notes that JWMCAC “was so clearly built for the auto age—which is of its time. But we’re finding out now that that’s not the best way to build cities.

“New Urbanism speaks to all of this. We need to find a way to make that area more walkable, more connected to downtown, so it’s not this thing over there that seems more related to the interstate.”

Goss adds that zoning will likely be an issue moving forward, given the potpourri of zoning designations in play in the vicinity of the coliseum. He says a form-based code—focusing on form over land use—might help. Form-based codes have already been implemented in redevelopment plans for the South Knox waterfront and Cumberland Avenue.

A form-based code would tend to encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development, and that idea already has considerable traction, given the recent success of downtown. “The trend with venues like ours is toward having more year-round shops, retail, etc.,” Mackay says. “It would be interesting to see if something like that would work here.”

One thing a JWMCAC rehab would have in its favor is scale, says Schimmenti. “I would suggest having a series of open forums, much like they did for Cumberland Avenue. Less so than the South Knox waterfront, which is so big I think it’s tough for the public to get their heads around it.

“This would be much more to scale. I think we were all surprised by how well our downtown has turned out. But we had everything in place, and it was the right size.”

Schimmenti notes the importance of creating what he calls a “24-hour environment” around the coliseum. “Most good places in cities are like that,” he says. “It means that people are always there, even if they’re sleeping.”

Dodds echoes that sentiment, observing that theaters, by themselves, are “lousy urban set pieces. They’re dark most of the time, then active for three hours.”

Dodds says the gruesome hulk of a parking garage that squats across Howard Baker Jr. Avenue from JWMCAC may need to be rethought in the interest of “creating more restaurants and stores, instead of this gigantic landscape of concrete slabs.”

But even if JWMCAC is wholly refurbished and reconfigured—and even if a focused master plan to redevelop the surrounding urban landscape emerges from the city’s current round of feasibility studies—the big modernist leftover on the south side of Interstate 40 may never be the flourishing downtown adjunct we want it to be, nor the reliable and beloved event and concert hall that it was.

“No one knows whether the volume of events would change with a more state-of-the-art facility,” says Capps. “But we are definitely having problems with some touring shows, because the place is not properly equipped to handle the productions.

“How many more would come if we had the facilities? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg question. [Refurbishing] would be an investment, and perhaps a little bit of a gamble. My gut tells me it would open us up to more. But how much more? I don’t know.” 

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